To optimize performance gains, the conventional wisdom has always been that caffeine supplements are superior to coffee. That’s one of the reasons why pre-workout supplements are so popular, and for most people, highly effective for improving exercise performance. But, in the last few years there has been some interesting research coming out demonstrating that coffee can perform just as well as caffeine supplements when it comes to exercise. Thus, the narrative shifted to coffee is just as good as caffeine or pre-workout supplements. Until now.
A ground-breaking new study has highlighted there may be more benefits to drinking coffee (versus taking supplements) and that it’s not just the caffeine in your cup of Joe that’s improving your training efforts, but likely a mix of multiple key nutrients.
First some background. In 2015, researchers found that coffee improved 1-repetition maximum (1-RM) in the leg press to a greater extent than supplemental caffeine, however both were equally effective at improving work capacity (i.e. the amount of reps you can perform).(1) Interestingly, no benefits were found for the upper-body bench press exercise.
Fast forward back to today and a new study attempted to show that it’s not just the caffeine in your coffee that is triggering the ergogenic training benefits. How did they attempt to uncover this novel concept? Let’s walk you through the experiment.
In this small study, researchers recruited nine young men and tested the effects of coffee, versus caffeine only, on bench press and squat strength. It’s a tricky study to perform because the half-life of caffeine – the time it takes to reduce by half in the body – is highly variable amongst individuals.(2) The training routine required the subjects to perform as many reps as possible of squats and bench press at 60% of 1-RM. The groups were divided into 5 categories…
1) 0.15 g/kg caffeinated coffee (COF; 3.4g per 100g coffee = 5.1g/kg body weight),
2) 0.15 g/kg decaffeinated coffee (DEC; 5mg caffeine per kg coffee = almost zero),
3) 0.15 g/kg decaffeinated coffee plus 5 mg/kg anhydrous caffeine (D+C),
4) 5 mg/kg anhydrous caffeine (CAF), or
5) a placebo (i.e. maltodextrin
(Note - decaffeinated coffee + caffeine was used to ensure the polyphenol concentrations were identical.)
The results were very interesting (see Figure 1.0 and 2.0 below)
Figure 1.0 – Total Weight Lifted in the Squat
Figure 2.0 – Total Weight Lifted in the Bench Press
Researchers founds the two groups that benefitted the most were the coffee and the decaffeinated coffee (with its natural polyphenols and phytonutrients) group with added caffeine.(3) Like previous studies, the researchers found that coffee (and caffeine) only benefited the lower-body dominant exercises (sorry bros, your pre-workout supplement might not be the best bet on arms day). Remember, all the participants did receive effectively the same amount of caffeine.
The bottom line: coffee may be a better performance choice, or just as good as supplemental caffeine, for increasing work capacity than simply caffeine alone.
A few things to consider... The caffeine content in coffee can vary markedly from one day to the next, so if you're an elite or professional athlete, supplements may still provide the best bet to dose accurately (check out Dr. Bubbs Performance Podcast episode below for more in-depth info). Next, prioritize your coffee intake before training sessions with compound lower-body dominant lifts (recall it's not effective for "arms" day!). Aslo, if you are loyal to your pre-workout formula, this study may provide some keen insight. It suggests combining you caffeine supplement with the nutrients found in decaf coffee would enhance your supplement benefits. Test it out for yourself to see how you respond. (And remember, caffeine in the afternoon or evening can impact deep sleep and recovery, so be sure to monitor your intake.)
Happy training (and coffee drinking!)
Dr. Marc Bubbs ND, CISSN, CSCS